- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) - West Texas cotton producers finally got the rain they needed last weekend, providing a short-term reprieve for the most drought-ravaged portion of the state and attracting the attention of international markets.

Most of West Texas from the top of the panhandle to south of San Angelo saw some measure of precipitation over five days starting May 22, ranging from an inch to more than a foot. In Lubbock, the total was 5.23 inches, putting the area slightly above normal for the year.

Growers across the region say the timing and pace of the rains was about as good as it gets - many had just planted or will in coming days.

Since the High Plains area of the region is the largest contiguous cotton-growing patch in the world, what happens to the nation’s leading producer can affect supplies and prices across the globe. In fact, the price of the fluffy fiber fell slightly because the much-needed precipitation signaled to traders a good start to this year’s crop, Plains Cotton Growers‘ executive vice president Steve Verett said.

In the months leading up to Memorial Day weekend, producer Doyle Schneirs says he was feeling somewhat depressed as time passed without a drop of rain.

Now, though, his mood has lifted because of the good rains.

“I can’t wipe a smile off my face,” said the 54-year-old who farms about 4,500 acres of cotton near San Angelo, which he says got as much as 13 inches. “It’s not been fun pushing dry dirt around.”

The rain will save money and water for producers who irrigate, while those who plant dryland cotton, a variety that relies solely on rainfall, will be able to get their plants up and growing after three years of near-total losses.

Texas was projected to plant 6.5 million acres, more than half of the country’s 11.3 million acres; High Plains producers are forecast to plant 4 million acres. The U.S. is the world’s third largest producer behind China and India.

Verett said that with additional rains during the growing period, the region could get a bale, or about 500 pounds, per acre, which would surpass overall production in any of the past three years and top the five-year average of 3.2 million bales.

The pace of the rain allowed moisture to percolate down to between 12 to 24 inches, said Texas AgriLife Extension cotton specialist Gaylon Morgan.

Lubbock-area producer Sigi Valverde said he viewed the recent precipitation as a “$10 million rain.” Though not the actual value of what the rain could do for the region’s acres, Valverde saw that value in area producers’ newly found glass-half-full view.

“You just feel a lot more optimism in your step,” he said. “It’s just been a long time coming.”

Three years ago, Texas recorded its driest year ever, costing the state $7.62 billion in agricultural losses. The High Plains pulled just 1.8 million bales of cotton from its field that year. The years since haven’t brought much rain either, leaving Texas’ lakes at their lowest level for this time of year since 1990.

Cotton industry people in Texas, the U.S. and the world assumed the persistent drought in West Texas would lead to acres of abandoned cotton, off which growers could claim insurance losses, Verett said. But when the rain started, traders took notice, he said.

“Most of those traders didn’t want to be caught short,” Verett said. “It’s definitely softened the market” as prices dropped slightly because a strong harvest would increase supply.

Of course, the good rains don’t guarantee a good harvest.

“This is just the first critical step to making a crop,” Morgan said. “It’s going to take another rain in late June or early July to keep that crop going.”

Producers could be helped by an El Nino weather pattern that is developing in the Pacific. It typically brings increased rainfall chances to the southwestern U.S., state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said, but the timing of it is not certain at this time.

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